Bridging the ease and affordability of the sharing economy with the amenities and design of a boutique hotel has propelled Sonder into a travel unicorn. In the wake of COVID-19, the company’s digitally driven experience looks more than ever like a model for the future. “We have some natural advantages as a business, like our virtual service and technology at every layer of the experience, and spaces that are more self-contained with washers, dryers, living rooms, and kitchens,”co-founder and CEO Francis Davidson says.
The brand’s network of more than 11,000 apartments across major markets in the U.S., European cities like London and Rome, and even Dubai has been expanding steadily since Davidson, along with partners Lucas Pellan and Martin Picard, founded it in 2012 after turning a profit subletting his Montreal apartment. From the outset, Sonder has operated as a travel company for the mobile phone generation. In lieu of front desk clerks, guests receive an access code and concierge services through the app. But unlike other short-term apartment rentals, daily housekeeping services are available during every stay. The portfolio is rooted in a modern design ethos, though their in-house design team eschews copy-and-paste aesthetics. “A core principle is to celebrate architecture and the arts. We want to embed those lessons in the properties and [maintain] a really high bar, but without a narrow point of view,” Davidson says.
Like all companies in the hospitality space, COVID-19 has prompted unforeseen challenges. But with features such as contactless check-in and mobile-first services already in place, Sonder was uniquely positioned to thrive in the new normal. “It’s possible to build a lot of technology, rethink the operations, and even at times to reinvent the experience to make it more modern and digital. It kind of doesn’t make sense for it to be done by hand, in-person at the property.
That doesn’t mean Sonder isn’t adapting its business to respond to the pandemic. Today brings the launch of Travel Well, a new initiative of guest-friendly policies such as flexible cancelation and updated sanitary practices guided by the Cleveland Clinic. “We’re taking it to the next level when it comes to the cleanliness standards and social distancing,” Davidson says of the measures to minimize transmission, checking off additional improvements such as in-unit hand sanitizer, safety signage, and enhanced disinfecting of high–touch surfaces.
Despite the headwinds caused by the pandemic, Davidson is bullish about the future. His optimism is buoyed by a recent $170 million Series E investment round, bolstering the company’s valuation to $1.3 billion. With a digital-first hospitality model, Sonder looks remarkably prescient in the age of social distancing. “The world is forever changed,” Davidson says. “There’s been a premise in the hospitality business that you need to have people on the ground to offer a great stay. But our view is that we can actually marry technology and be really human without having to interact in person.”
Sonder plans to restart its growth plan next year with a focus on Europe. The next evolution of the brand could see the introduction of more traditional hotel elements like restaurants and bars, an offering that exists in many of their buildings now through partnerships. Everything is on the table. As bold as it may sound, Davidson’s ambition is to build one of the great consumer brands of our era. “We want to build the hospitality company of the next generation of travelers. Hospitality has such an opportunity to just stand for something. Right now, you can stay at a nice hotel and there are some great places for you to rent. But they are so damn expensive. We think it’s possible to give a really luxurious experience to the middle class,” he says. “If we have a collection of great spaces with killer architecture that you can seamlessly book on your phone at an affordable price point, it gives us the opportunity to be a brand that’s loved by a whole lot of people.”